Saturday, 17 November 2018

Pomegranate Rinds and Heating Ancient Medicaments: getting a better understanding of ancient medical directions

When researching ancient medicine certain direction keep popping up in both Latin and Greek which leave you pondering "how would that work." For me lately the phrase has been "warmed in a pomegranate rind." This direction was given in the direction for various medicaments, but no further information was given. The writers expected the reader to know how this was done. So today, I decided to see how easy it was to do this. 
I started with what I thought would help: a pomegranate, a candle, something in which to place the candle which would hold up the rind, and something to warm, butter (bile was commonly warmed like this, but that isn't something you can by from the supermarket).
First job was to empty my pomegranate. I'd never had anything to do with this fruit prior to this, so that was an education. I had imagined a thicker rind, with more white pith, a bit like an overgrown passionfruit. Well, that was wrong.
The fibres holding the seeds together aren't the easiest things to break through either, but I managed to empty half the fruit. This was how it looked after I had rinsed out the left over juice.
I'd set up my candle holder, and placed my rind above the flame like so:
And the damn flame went out! I was going to have to hold it up. So I added my knob of butter:
And proceeded to hold it over the flame. First, it never surprises me how much heat a tea candle can generate, but it surprised me how much heat the pomegranate rind conducts. Also as the rind heats it became softer and gives way under your hands. At some points I was holding the rind well above the candle and my fingers were getting uncomfortably warm. Even at this height:
My brother Rick was kind enough to assist me in this and is holding the ruler for this shot.
In very little time, my butter was melting and was definitely warmed through. This photo was taken less than 10 minutes after I began this.
I chose to melt butter for a specific reason. I wanted to know why people were directed to warm medicaments in this manner. Warming material was common in ancient medical texts. It was even said that all medicaments dripped into ears had to be warmed. But warming could take place in a variety of ways. Some directions called for liquids to be warmed in a strigil (the device used to scrape oil from the body at the baths), or in cups or pots. Warming was sometimes not even directed, just expected. So warming in a pomegranate rind suggests that this method does something to the medicaments. By warming butter, I could tell what kind of a difference it made by safely comparing the taste. It should be noted that numerous materials used medicinally in the ancient world are poisonous, and you shouldn't just taste things without giving consideration to safety.
I had been told by a colleague that pomegranate rind is incredibly bitter, and it was used as a curdling agent in antiquity, so I had expected the butter to become bitter. It didn't. It had taken up some of the flavour of the fruit, but it wasn't bitter. In any event, warming material in the rind of a pomegranate definitely would have affected the medicaments, and as such this method was certainly an important element of the preparation.
But this still left me with another half of a pomegranate with which to experiment.
I have only just finished writing a commentary on ear treatments, and Celsus described the creation of a medicament which used the pomegranate heating method. Celsus wrote:
"If again the ears have pus in them as well, it is proper to pour in ... the juice of a sweet pomegranate warmed in its rind, to which a little myrrh is added." 
And I have some myrrh. And its incredible how much juice come out of a pomegranate. So I started my second experiment.
I hadn't expected the myrrh to float. 
For some reason this time I was able to hold the rind closer to the candle. For the majority of time I managed to hold it around an inch above the flame. This was somewhat different to the first experiment. Unfortunately I did spill some of the juice at one point when I tried to look at the bottom of the rind.
All up, I held the rind over the candle for twenty minutes, and in less than half that time I could see whisps of steam rising from the surface of the liquid. That steam had the smell of myrrh. Not long after that, all the myrrh which had been floating had fallen to the bottom of the rind. At around 15 minutes in there were even some tiny (1-2mm in diameter) bubbles. The steam become more obvious after that, and it could be smelled from further away.
While it doesn't photograph well, the steam was still rising after I placed the rind down on the table at the end of the heating. The lighter patch I've circled here was steam.
At the end I tipped the remaining juice out:
The dark spots that you can see in the bottom of the rind are what remains of the myrrh. I fished some pieces out, and they have a soft crumbly texture which myrrh does not normally have. 
My brother and I tasted the juice. Yuck, doesn't even begin to cover it. It is horribly bitter, and likely tasted worse as a result of my tasting the non-heated juice immediately prior to tasting the doctored juice. I think the bitterness must be the result of the myrrh, but the slight bubbling of the juice might suggest that the more bitter elements of the rind had released into the juice. I would like to conduct this experiment once more without the myrrh to see what difference that might have made. No I didn't pour any of it into my ear. That would not only be gross, but my ear is not currently purulent and my GP would pitch a fit.
So at the end I have a pomegranate rind containing butter (it has started to congeal as I've been writing this blog), and a pomegranate rind with a significantly blackened skin. At no point did the fruit touch the flame, so that is likely the result of candle smoke.
I now know that this was a reasonably simple thing to do. While I used a candle, I imagine that an oil lamp would work just as easily. Yes, the rind gets a bit hot, but at no time unreasonably. The rind also gets softer, but that was not the cause of my spill; I'm just a klutz. All up, despite what I might do different in the future, what I sought more than anything else was to see how easy it was to warm something this way. Very easy would be the answer. It might have taken longer in antiquity because I do not know if modern hybridisation has made the rind thinner, but even if that was the case, I don't imagine it would have made it all that much more problematic. I also know now that when doctors recommended this, they did so for a reason, and that swapping heating methods would have compromised the treatment. All in all it was a successful experiment.
Now I have to figure out what to do with my pomegranate seeds and remaining juice. 

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

What do Stan Lee and Homer have in common?

Today comic book nerds and superhero movie fans mourned the passing of Stan Lee. They knew this day would come. I first saw this meme years ago:

I don't consider myself a comic nerd, but I have seen most of the Marvel films and watched for the inevitable cameo. As an ancient historian with an interest in ancient pop culture, I've often enjoyed drawing comparisons between mythology and comic book movies, and I have appreciated the similarities between them.
So what do Homer and Stan Lee have in common. Sure, Stan's eyesight was failing (he was legally blind), and Homer was thought to have been blind, but that's not what I'm getting at.
No, their commonality to me is the attribution to them of characters which went on to be reimagined by numerous storytellers afterwards. Yes, Stan Lee created brilliant characters, but they became the prototypes for various retellings of stories by numerous comic book writers and screenplay writers afterwards, much as the Homeric cycle was rewritten throughout antiquity time and time again (I've written on this theme before here). Stan Lee had no problems with his creations being reimagined for new audiences, and if Homer existed as an individual (yes I know a big if) as his work was thought to have been composed as an oral epic, I like to think that he too would have enjoyed seeing his characters reworked by others over time.
The reports on Stan Lee's death on Australia's ABC television made a huge point that his his heroes were deliberately made imperfect and more human, and each time I heard that phrase today, I was immediately drawn to the idea that these characters shared this in common with Greek gods and heroes. I have always seen Iron Man as Prometheus for example. I don't know if this was deliberate, but I do know that the world Stan Lee created in which to place his heroes was influenced by the classical world: consider the evil organisation, Hydra for example. I also think that a family tree of the Greek gods and heroes would be as confusing as an X-Men family tree; they are both confusing and have variations depending on which retelling of the stories you focus on.  Stan Lee also seems to have been a fan of the Latin language. Excelsior (more noble) was one of his favourite words, and at least one of his "Stan's Soapbox" rants from 1968 (it was widely shared today on social media addressing bigotry) was signed off with pax et justitia "peace and justice". 
Stan Lee created characters which inspired writers over decades to rework these into new times for new audiences, just as the Homeric epics did. I do wonder whether in a couple of thousand years time we will be comparing a wealth of later literature to a small portion of Stan Lee's original comics just as we currently compare Greek and Latin poems and plays to the Iliad and the Odyssey. It wouldn't surprise me if people were writing blogs doing so right now. Given the nature of the characters he created, I also wouldn't be surprised if they were still being reimagined for new audiences just as Greek heroes still are today. I also think Stan Lee would have loved that.
Excelsior, Stan Lee (1922-2018).

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Marshmallow and a treatment for so-called gout: experimental ancient history

Because I wanted to be an archaeologist as a child, I have a very soft spot for experimental archaeology. It gives fantastic insights into the past which help us to better understand it. Alas, I am but a humble ancient historian instead, but I still love the concepts of experimentation to better inform us of the past, and today I have worked on a little experimental ancient history in the field of ancient pharmacology. Why won't I call it experimental archaeology? Because I am using modern technology (my stove) not fire. 
I have just concluded my research on the Plinii Medicina's recommended treatment for podagra. Podagra is often translated as gout, but this isn't particularly accurate. Podagra referred to a number of different rheumatological or arthritic complaints of the feet, which could include of the treatments suggested was boiled marshmallow root applied with axle-grease as a plaster. As luck would have it, my aunt had plenty of marshmallows growing on her farm, and was coming to visit. She agreed to bring one with her. 
This is what it looked like after being transported in a bag over 600 km and kept in a bag for a five days.
I had explained that I was only needing the root, but they brought the whole plant. This was rather handy. As those people involved looking at ancient botany and pharmacology are aware, identification is a very fraught issue. While my aunt and mother identified this plant as marshmallow, it might not be the marshmallow I was looking for. Given that I am studying Roman treatments in Australia, this is even more problematic. 
With a little work on google, I identified this plant as Malva parviflora, also called cheeseweed, cheeseweed mallow, and marshmallow. According to Beck's translation of Dioscorides' De Materia Medica, I should be looking for Althaea officianalis. Both plants are members of the mallow family. 
While I was incredibly disappointed, I decided to go ahead with my intended experiment. Google did not exist in Roman times, and neither did the modern classifications of plants. In antiquity, if someone said a plant was marshamallow, or I should say ibiscum, then that was what it was. In addition to this, adulteration of materia medica was an acknowledged problem in antiquity. On that principle, I decided to go ahead with my plan. 
For such a large plant the root is rather small by comparison. 

My aunt said it was extremely difficult to pull up owing to the long tap root. I cut it off.
The root had been a little damaged and I pulled apart at the naturally formed split:
I found this very interesting as I have read about numerous medical recipes which had required the "bark of a root". This phrase has bamboozled me for years now, and this is the first moment that it has ever made sense. This outer layer of the root is what must be meant by this.
Now I know I said I cut the root off. That doesn't truly reflect what I did. I sawed through the root with a serrated edged knife from multiple sides until I got through it. This stuff is tough! Fortunately there was a very stuff strand which I could cut through which I used like the string you find on cheese portions which allowed me to open the root up fairly easily like this:
It is this inner root that I decided to use. All up I ended up with a rather small amount of inner root from the plant:
This was barely ten centimetres long. In addition to this, its damn hard. It took a considerable amount of force to snap the larger piece in two.
Now the text of the Medicina Plinii states: hibisci radices coctas cum axungia misces et cataplasma pedibus ponis. I translate this as: you mix boiled marshmallow roots with axle-grease and you apply the plaster to the feet.
So I needed to boil my root. While an earlier writer, Scribonius Largus (chapter 160), described boiling it in water and honey and Celsus (4.31.4-5) said to boil in wine, but because the writer of my text didn't specify what it was to boiled in, I boiled it in water:
After 30 minutes they were still as hard as they were when I started. 
After an hour I did manage to piece them with a tooth pick. Barely.
After two hours it looked like this:
I ended up splitting this piece up along the grain and continued boiling it for another 30 minutes. After that I just stopped. The root wasn't terribly softer than it was when I started, even those pieces I'd split, and I thought it highly improbable that a person suffering from podagra would have waited that long. I have arthritis in my feet, so I feel comfortable speaking for my imaginary ancient patient. So I drained my root and placed it in my mortar. And pounded it a bit. It looked like this first:
I pounded some more. It took a hell of a lot of effort. I also chopped up some of the softer pieces of root with a pair of scissors. After a great deal of effort and some pain, my roots looked like this:
I decided that was good enough so I needed to add some axle-grease. While we use petroleum-based axle-grease today, in antiquity they used lard or suet. No I don't know what their carts smelled like, and I don't want to think about it too much. I have always imagined that when referring to axle-grease medical writers were expecting their reader to go get some grease from a cart. I used some freshly purchased pig's lard which I'd left out of the fridge for a bit. In a nod to the idea that you don't want it to be too fresh, I let my cat lick it. 
Adding the lard little-by-little, the thing I noticed first was a change in smell. The root had a rather subtle not unpleasant scent, but adding lard to it made it smell unpleasant. I can only imagine how much worse it would have smelt with stale lard. In the end, it looked like this:
Celsus (4.31.4-5) described marshmallow applications as heating and recommended their use at night, so this treatment was more likely to have been used on the forms of podagra which weren't accompanied by a burning sensation (so it was probably not used on patients like me). I put some on my hand:

Those pieces of root which I didn't cut down with scissors didn't adhere as well, but the smaller cut pieces did so extremely well. I didn't notice any heating, but this could have been because I boiled in water instead of wine, didn't use stale grease (which wasn't mentioned by Celsus) or the fact that this wasn't the marshmallow they meant. I also didn't leave it on for terribly long because I wasn't comfortable with a strange root and pig's fat on my hand. 
As you can see from the photos, I have a fair amount of plant material on my hand, and I still had some in my mortar. The single piece of root would likely have been sufficient for a foot at the very least.
Some reflections on this experiment:
⚫️ I wonder whether it was possible to go to an ancient apothecary and buy cooked marshmallow roots? Or perhaps finely cut up marshmallow roots. All up it took me more than three hours to prepare this using a stove. If preprepared roots could be bought this would save considerable time. The pain of podagra can flare up quickly and waiting for more than three hours for relief would be horrid. Also, if this disease was also affecting the hands, it would be nigh on impossible to prepare for yourself.
⚫️ I had assumed the "root-cutters" as referred to in Sophocles' play were those who went and gathered the roots used. Given how difficult it was to cut this root, perhaps cutting roots was a specialist job when preparing medicaments.
⚫️ As stated above, I now know what is meant be "root bark".
⚫️ I followed the most basic description provided by the author and had a great deal of difficulty. It makes me wonder how much knowledge was just assumed to exist in his readers' minds. This is also relevant to the question of plant identification.
Things I would do differently:
⚫️ Aquire some Althaea officianalis and try this again. While it would be a good idea to allow the lard to go "stale", I don't know that my stomach could stand that.
⚫️ Given the difficulty I had, perhaps I should have tried to cut the roots finer before boiling them. This would have been very difficult, but perhaps it was expected.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Australian Politics, #MeToo, and Ancient Greece as Western Democracy

"In the wake of the #MeToo movement, it is crucial to reassess the way we teach and write about art historically important works that portray violence against women – violence spanning millennia when viewed through the lens of art history – in order to reinvigorate the role played by art history in contemporary social movements. Although images of violence against women are not exclusive to ancient Greek art, the large number of artworks from ancient Greece depicting this violence, such as abduction (a metaphor for rape in ancient Greece), coupled with the perception of Greece as a paradigm of democracy in the West, suggests a reanalysis of Greek art is a good place to start."
Reading this passage in Cynthia Colburn's and Ella Gonzalez's article in HyperallergicHow to Teach Ancient Art in the Age of #MeToo, struck me this morning as enlightening within the context of Australia's "culture war". (I strongly recommend this article because some of my discussion below will make little sense otherwise.) Following this year's latest blow up surrounding the Ramsay Foundation's attempt to establish a degree in Western Civilisation, the phrase "the perception of Greece as a paradigm of democracy in the West" sent my mind racing into the maelstrom of the "culture war" which is politicised heavily in Australia. 
As I have written before Tony Abbott's (Australia's former prime minister) declaration that the Ramsay Centre was "not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it" doubled with ANU's decision to knock back the offer resulted in another public outburst in Australia's culture war. Normally the battle fronts of this are Australian history, especially about historical approaches to colonisation, so this little outbreak of hostilities was quite different. It also provides the opportunity to use broader Western history and culture to look at Australia's current government. 
The Ramsay Foundation (which backs the creation of the Ramsay Centre) and its members who are or were politicians (at least John Howard and Tony Abbott, but there might be more I am unaware of) would be more than happy with the concept of Greece being perceived as a paradigm of western democracy. While I can't give a direct quote, Greek culture giving the world democracy was one of the points highlighted to in the debate about the creation of the Ramsay Centre and its specialist degree. 
However, I am quite sure that the supporters of the Ramsay Centre (in politics and media) would be terribly uncomfortable with the rest of this essay. Australia has just undergone in the last month more political upheaval with the conservative faction of the Liberal Party (which includes Tony Abbott) arranging the metaphorical assassination of its moderate leader, Malcolm Turnbull. While this faction was unable to get its preferred leader, their machinations led to Turnbull's resignation. This is of interest to the topic of Colburn's and Gonzalez's essay because in the wash up this, numerous female members of the Liberal Party have spoken out about the behaviour of male members of the conservative faction bullying and threatening them in an attempt to get their signatures on a petition to demand another vote on who should lead the party. When these women spoke out about the threatening behaviour of their colleagues, numerous male members of the conservative faction of the Liberal Party (not members of parliament) publicly stated that these women needed to "harden up and role with the punches" and that politics was a hard game and if they couldn't handle the heat, get out. By speaking out against this behaviour, are the women within the Liberal Party being seen as Amazons by the conservative faction, behaving unnaturally?
The conservative faction of the Liberal Party have historically been the strongest "cultural warriors" and it is members of this faction who have supported the Ramsay Foundation's desire to create a Western Civilisation degree, and this is the behaviour and attitude towards women of this faction within our democracy. The Liberal Party is often referred to as "having a woman problem." This makes for an interesting comparison with the attitudes towards women represented Greek art as discussed by Colburn and Gonzales.      
While questions of misogyny abound within the Liberal Party, none of these events have been described as sexual in nature. But the same cannot be said of the Liberal Party's coalition partner, the National Party. On Thursday the outcome of a complaint made against then leader of the National Party, Barnaby Joyce, was made public. The internal review of the complaint made by the New South Wales National Party was "unable to make a determination about my complaint of sexual harassment against the former leader of that party … due to insufficient evidence”. This was the outcome despite the investigation finding the complainant "forthright, believable, open" and "genuinely upset" by the incident. In the discussions which surrounded this non-outcome, some people found this result inconceivable because Barnaby Joyce had recently released a memoir in which he described his behaviour towards women (he found life in the country's capital "lonely", resulting in his extra-marital affair with a younger woman in his staff) and his tendency towards drinking too much. Joyce could be easily painted as a centaur figure and the NSW National Party as the Lapiths. 
Photo by Egisto Sani, sourced from Flickr.
Centaur sexually assaulting a Lapith woman from the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia
These issues relating to the treatment of women within Australian politics are not limited to the current ruling coalition, with enough stories swirling around also encompassing the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Greens to provide a political science student a dissertation, but they do not relate to the leadership of political parties. 
The question that I have for those conservative members of the Liberal and National Parties who support the creation of the Ramsay Centre, do they support the entirety of ancient Greek culture when you view Greece as a paradigm for democracy in the West? And does this explain your parties' "women problem"?
Given that Catherine Marriott had made her complaint with a request for anonymity, I thought the least I could do was use a picture which clearly showed the elbow to the centaur's head.
The photograph was taken by Egisto Sani.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

The Blurred Line Between Fiction and Non-Fiction in Antiquity

Tonight I led a discussion about the "Epistle" and "Prologue" to Dictys Cretensis' Journal of the Trojan War. I chose the text after the work was referred to by Antonis Kotsonas from the University of Cincinnati in a public lecture he gave last week at The University of Queensland. The lecture was about how Homer related to the archaeology of Crete and was extremely entertaining. I thought it would make for an interesting discussion given how I had previously discussed Vulture Epistles and Damigeron's work On Stones which features a letter at its start too. I normally don't plan to spend a lot of time preparing for these sessions, but I found this text difficult to prepare.
Both the "Epistle" and the "Prologue" (which don't appear together in manuscripts except in one exceptional case), give a description of the discovery of the text which follows. At its most basic, the text is found in the tomb of its author after it was found by luck (collapse through age or earthquake depending on whether you believe the "Epistle" or "Prologue") by shepherds during the reign of the emperor Nero near Knossos on Crete. The work and it Prologue are a literary fiction first written in Greek and later translated into Latin, and most of the current scholarship on it places it within the various Greek novels. Most of my discussion tonight was based on Nicholas Horsfall's discussion of the Prologue.
Yes, I agree that Dictys never existed, and that the discovery of his tomb and the stagnum (it's an alloy of lead and silver) box containing his account of the Trojan War is a fiction, but despite Horsfall's fantastic argument that it is a parody of scholarship I don't think that it was a terribly obvious parody. Horsfall's argument is primarily based on the sign posts within the text that it wasn't to taken seriously. The sign posts include the author's purported name: Dictys Cretensis - Dictys the Cretan. The name Dictys derived from the name of Mt Dikte on Crete, so the name is a bit "Cretan McCreteface". Cretans, from the time the Odyssey was written were described as liars of the highest order, so this was meant to tell the reader it was fiction. 
The majority of Horsfall's arguments are based on the literary tropes the text shares with numerous other ancient novels, and they are significant, but the focus on the fictional nature of the text doesn't address how it was later received as an historical text, especially among Byzantine historians. 
Horsfall makes the valid point that the discovery of marvellous texts was a popular fictional trope, but it also exists in non-fictional texts. While he cites numerous fictional examples, works which were considered non-fictional in antiquity were also wondrously discovered including Cyranides, a work which we consider magical but was seen as a natural history, that was purportly found inscribed on iron slabs in a Syrian language. While not as closely following this trope, in the Byzantine period there were stories recorded in historical works of men acquiring ancient Greek scientific texts in wondrous way. This trope wasn't limited to fictional works. 
The very idea of the use of "Punic letters" to write the work is placed into the context of a fictional trope by Horsfall, which it is. But it is also worth noting that Karen Ni Mheallaigh (2012) points out that the description of this use of alphabet fitted in very well with what was understood as the history of the development of Greek writing in antiquity.
Horsfall also notes the idea of shepherds finding ancient works was a common fictional trope, but we know this isn't limited to ancient fiction. The Dead Sea Scrolls were actually discovered by a Bedouin shepherd. In addition to this, an actual Bronze Age tomb was found in the last month by a farmer whose wheel fell into the collapsed shaft of the tomb. We know as an historical reality that these things can and do happen. 
Horsfall also states that the translation of a work to make it available to a wider population was an attempt to imbue the fiction with authority, but two examples which he provided, the translation of a Carthaginian text on agriculture and Mithridates' work on toxicology are both historical examples. 
It seemed, at least to me, that Horsfall's argument, utterly convincing to modern scholarship, is a little unfair to those ancient and medieval readers who took the work at face value.
The full text we now have is a Latin free-translation of a Greek text made by the author of the "Epistle", Lucius Septimius, and Edward Champlin (1981) provided a prosopographical study (that is he tried to identify who that was by reviewing all possible evidence) in which he identified this person as one Septimius Serenus Sammonicus, a member of the Severan court at Rome (he died in 211CE) who was known to be a little gullible. This identification is not a popular one, with the majority of current scholarship dating the translation to the fourth century CE, but it suggests that readers might not realise that this was a parody. Indeed, three Byzantine historians based their accounts of the Trojan war on this text: John Malalas (6th century), Joannes Antiochenus (7th century), and Georgius Cedrenus (11th century). In addition to this, Malalas and the Suidas both date an earthquake on Crete to the reign of Claudius because they mistook the full name of Nero for Claudius (it gets a bit confusing when you look at the full names of Roman emperors, and the shift to Greek doesn't help) on the basis of the "Preface".
At the end of the discussion, I was extremely pleased when the students seemed to agree that while the text never existed and that Horsfall was likely correct that it was parody, they did not think it was an obvious parody. One even suggested that the author might have even been intentionally deceitful. Upon typing this just now, I wonder whether some would argue that the very concept of such deliberate deceitfulness was in keeping with a work attributed to a Cretan author, so this post seems to be becoming an Escher print or the classical version of Inception. 
In any case, whether the author meant to or not, this text blurred the line between ancient fiction and non-fiction.

Nicholas Horsfall, 2008-09. "Dictys' Ephemeris and the Parody of Scholarship", Illinois Classical Studies, no. 33-4, pp. 41-63.
Karen Ni Mheallaigh, 2012. "The 'Phoenician Letters' of Dictys of Crete and Dionysius Scytobrachion", Cambridge Classical Journal, vol. 58, pp. 181-93.
Edward Champlin, 1981. "Serenus Sammonicus", Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 85, pp. 189-212.
Nathaniel Griffin, 1908. "The Greek Dictys", American Journal of Philology, vol. 29, pp. 329-35.
One report on the discovery of the tomb this month can be found here.
The only complete translation of the work attributed to Dictys Cretensis was made by R. Frazer, and can be found online here. I'm not a huge fan of the translation, but that is a bias based on his translation of stagnum as tin. 

Friday, 17 August 2018

"Standing on the Shoulders of Giants": recognising the work required to give us the ancient texts in our libraries

One thing I love about researching history is coming to realisations and sharing them with others. Last  night was one such occasion for me.
While I do use the term "classicist" to describe myself it is usually because it's shorter than "ancient historian", which is a better description of me. Yes, I can translate Latin, but I don't study Latin for the sake of studying Latin; I study it for what texts written in that language can tell me about the past. As a result, I went through my undergrad and postgrad education not thinking too much about how we came to have the lovely printed critical editions of Greek and Latin texts in our libraries, let alone what all the obscure footnotes at the bottom of their pages actually mean. 
Now that I am writing a commentary and translation of a rather obscure Latin text, I have had to finally look at those footnotes and figure them out. I don't know if students who did classics majors with advanced language classes were taught about them, but for me I had to figure it out for myself. Looking at these opened my eyes to the wonders of manuscript traditions, which with amazing digitisation projects, led me to looking not at these critical editions, but the centuries old manuscripts from which they were derived. To look at these manuscripts and then at the printed texts, you come face to face with the amazing scholarship which has preceded your own. You often hear about "standing on the shoulders of giants" in academia, but rather than sounding like an annoying phrase spouted by professors to belittle the work of students, it really came into focus for me when looking at these. Not since reading Denis Feeney's Caesar's Calendar had I found myself in awe of the generations of work which belie the texts and dates which underpin the discipline of ancient history.
So last night I gave students and members of the public a taste of this work looking at texts which have not undergone the process: the so-called Vulture Epistles.
Vulture Epistles are short magical texts which outlined the use of various parts of vultures as charms and the treatments for diseases. They often took the form of letters, often from authoritative figures from Persia or Arabia to Roman emperors (though most often called kings instead). Their letter format was a literary device, and the eastern figures were normally made up from whole cloth. The copies of these letters which have survived do not always include a salutation, and they appear in both Greek and Latin. While these texts have been published piecemeal in various books and articles, no critical edition has been made. Being short texts, they are great for illustrating the decisions which need to be made to create such an edition. 
I started the discussion by pointing out how many manuscripts have survived in both Greek and Latin, and which salutations survived in which manuscripts. The majority of these people had never seen a manuscript before, so I was glad I had prepared a small PowerPoint presentation in which I included two different digitised copies of the Vulture Epistles. The first was the manuscript from 9th century which provided the text which was translated into English:
9th century Vulture Epistle manuscript
The second manuscript image I had brought was not one which had been used as a source for the discussion. Instead it was a partial copy without any salutation which seems to have been included as a footnote (my brother pointed that out to me) in an 11th century volume:
11th century Vulture Epistle manuscript (footnote)
I then moved on to looking at the differences in texts. Because I was talking to people with no classical language skills, I used an English translation of an early manuscript and three other different Latin versions which had been analysed in the 1920s. I then showed the group where the basic recommended use of parts of vultures matched between the English translation and the three Latin manuscripts. I did not go into the differences in the language because that would require a greater Latin knowledge than the reading group presumes. 
By focussing on the English text and showing the group where the texts match with other versions, I think I managed to convey that for every published text we have, someone had to decide what was included and from which manuscripts. While all but one section of the translated text appeared in at least one other Latin versions, the translated text did not include all the material the Latin manuscripts included. 
By taking this basic approach which did not go into too much detail, I think I managed to convey to the group the kind of work which had to be done for every text which has had a critical edition published. 
Vulture Epistles are fun to read, and I think using an entertaining text is essential for introducing what are difficult concepts to a group of non-specialists. Once I finally finish my work on the Medicina Plinii, the work I put into this might constitute the beginnings of creating my own critical edition of this text.

Bibliography for people interested in these texts:
F. Cumont, (1926). "Le sage Bothros ou le phylarque Arétas?", Revue de Philologie, vol. 50, pp. 13-33. This paper includes copies of three different Latin texts which I used to compare with the English translation.
L. Mackinney, (1943). "An Unpublished Treatise on Medicine from the Age of Charlemagne," Speculum, vol. 18, pp. 494-6. This paper includes what I consider a partially faulty English translation of the text (the identification of ingredients is occasionally wrong because Mackinney hasn't studied similar texts medico-magical texts elsewhere) and a poor copy of the manuscript when compared to what is available online now (compare the first picture above). You can find a copy of that page at: BnF Paris. lat. 9332 folio 251v.
A. A. Barb, (1950). "The Vulture Epistle," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 13, pp. 318-22. This paper is mostly a critique of Mackinney's paper (the most significant of which was the failure to acknowledge Cumont's work on the topic), but it also includes great references to various manuscripts which contain copies of Vulture Epistles.

The manuscript details for the texts which I discussed were:
Paris, BnF lat. 9332
Montpelier, École de Medicine, no. 277
British Library, Egerton 321
Paris, BnF nouv. aquis. Lat. 229

Friday, 10 August 2018

Healing Stones: New Age Trend Isn't All That "New"

I love stones and crystals, and have done so since I was a little girl when my dad would help me collect rocks. While my first rock collection was lost in a childhood move, I still have a bowl of beautiful stones and crystals to which I add occasionally with material found both in nature and in shops. I used to keep that bowl in my office at university and people would assume I was some kind of "New Age" person; I even had someone ask if I had cleansed my crystals in the full moon (no, they weren't poking fun, they were serious - I managed not to laugh out loud). What I am saying is that my love of stones is purely aesthetic, and not rooted within a belief in magic. I was once told that amethyst helped prevent worry, so for a while I used to carry one into exams and public speaking events, but my use of it was a bit like Dumbo's feather - it gave my confidence a boost.
My rock collectionAs a self-confessed lithophile and ancient historian, I love the occasional references you get to stones in ancient texts. Pliny's last two books of Natural History is particularly fun to read as it is devoted to stones. So imagine my surprise and joy when looking for examples for the use of so-called swallow-stones in the treatment of epilepsy last year when I came across a Latin text entitled On the Virtues of Stones by Damigeron. I might have danced in my chair just a little.
A quick glance of the Latin showed that this book was an interesting mix of folklore, medicine, and magic, exactly the kind of book which people promoting New Age ideas love to use in order to give their theories authority. You see similar uses of ancient herbal texts for natural therapies. So it came as no surprise that the only English translation of this work was published in 1989 by a small publisher whose website states it does bookbinding and self-publishing, "Ars Obscura Press" in Seattle. It practically screams New Age. While I haven't seen the whole book (there are no copies in Australia) passages of it quoted in articles indicate a pretty accurate translation.
But who was Damigeron? 
I have only been able to find two references to Damigeron outside of this text. The Christian author Tertullian made a passing reference to Damigeron in his discussion of the soul in relation to necromancy (Tertullian, De anima, 57):
"Either it is excellent to be kept here with the 'dead-by-violence', to employ the terms now voiced by the source of such beliefs, namely magic - Ostanes, Typhon, Dardanus, Damigeron, Nectabis, and Berenice."
Apuleius, a writer who was accused of bewitching his wife by her children made reference to Damigeron in his published defence against the charge (Apuleius, Apologia, 90.5-6):
"...if a single reason can be found, however slight, why I should have tried to marry Prudentilla for some advantage to myself, then call me the famous Carmendas or Damigeron, or their predecessors Moses, Johannes, Apollobex, Dardanus himself, or any celebrated magus since Zoroaster and Ostanes."
Apuleius' reference to Damigeron is especially informative because it shows that despite how little he was referred to, he was abviously a well known magical figure in antiquity. People could drop his name and his audience could be expected to know enough about him to understand their point.
These two references tell us little about Damigeron himself, so everything else about him has been derived by looking at the text of On the Virtues of Stones and as a result is open to debate. I have read people suggest that Damigeron was actually Persian, while others state he was Egyptian, but his name is Greek. People studying the text state that it was written in the style of the Hellenistic period, drawing on both Greek and Egyptian traditions. Indeed Egypt is referred to fairly often in the text, but that might have been an attempt to imbue the work with authority as a magical text. People who discuss the text also cannot agree as to whether it was written in the second or first century BCE, but it is agreed that it was originally written in Greek and later translated into Latin, possibly in the fifth century CE. While the Latin text is published attributing the work to Damigeron, I am not completely convinced; at one point it reads "Damigeron scribit:" ("Damigeron writes:") half way through a discussion of a stone. That suggests to me that this is not a complete work of Damigeron. 
We know that the very beginning of the published Latin text is not meant to have been written by Damigeron. As a prologue to the text there is a letter which claims to have been written by one King Evax of Arabia to the Roman emperor Tiberius. Evax seems to be a fictitious character whose only other appearance is ain a medieval interpolation in a couple of the poorer manuscripts of Pliny's Natural History. The inclusion of this letter means that this text is similar to other medico-magical texts like the "Vulture Epistles" for which we have both Greek and Latin copies surviving. The use of a letter format to famous historical figures was another attempt to imbue the text with authority. I find these attempts to create authority in relation to magical texts highly amusing because these kinds of texts are now used by people promoting New Age medical "treatments" to provide authority.
In addition to providing advice on the magical use of fifty stones, this text has been described as the earliest text discussing stones in relation to astrology. After the greeting from Evax to Tiberius, the introductory letter outlines the association between seven stones which cure men by preventing disease, and associates them with individual constellations: chrisolithus to Leo; astroselinus to Cancer; haematitus to Aries; ceraunius to Sagittarius; demos to Taurus; arabicus to Virgo; and ostracites to Capricorn. I have left the names of these stones as they were written in the Latin text because identifying ancient stones is terribly fraught; look up any of these names with the exception of haematitus, haematite, in a Greek or Latin dictionary and prepare to be bamboozled (King, whose text I've provided a link to below is quite questionable). This is quite problematic when viewing ancient astrology; the number seven normally related to the "planets" (sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), not the zodiac constellations of which there were twelve, just like today. A writer who fully understood ancient astrology would not have made that error. It is even more curious that the seven stones listed there were not all included in among the fifty stones discussed under headings in the body of the text. In addition to this, the discussion of those fifty stones do not touch on astrology. This disconnect between the introductory letter and the body of the text suggests at least two different authors.
I haven't read the entire text closely, but I have three segments from it: those on "swallow stone" lapis chelidonius (no. 10), "wolf's tooth stone" lapis odontolycius (no. 18), and "cock's stone" lapis alectorius (no. 19). 
While all three of these include explicitly magical effects which aren't described elsewhere in ancient literature (they will make you charming, women will love you, you'll be eloquent and successful in business or in sport are all promised), there is some crossover between medical texts and this work, especially the use of swallow stones in the treatment of epilepsy in ancient times. This use seems to have come from a Greek tradition which supports the idea that this was originally a Greek text. Dioscorides, a first century CE medical writer, described the use of swallow stones taken from the gullet of swallow chicks as an amulet to treat epilepsy (Materia Medica 2.56.1). Rather than describing them as a black and a red stone, he differentiated between them as mottled and plain. Pliny, likely using Dioscorides as his source, also recommended their use, but did not differentiate between them and described it as recommended by the Magi (Nat. Hist. 30.27.91). Cassius Felix (71), a Latin medical writer who derived his material from Greek texts, also recommended their use, but he described the stones as well-formed and malformed. Damigeron actually stated that the red stone was used to heal "lunatics, the insane, and invalids", and in late Latin texts, lunaticus was used as a term for epileptics (see Isidore of Seville, Etymology, 4.7.6). When you consider the likely Greek origin of this treatment and Pliny's reference to the Magi, which he tended to use indiscriminately when referencing magic cures, this fits well within the Graeco-Egyptian origins of the text.
In relation to "wolf's tooth stone", the first sentence devoted to its description is a statement that it is actually a wolf's tooth. While this could still be a stone (fossilised teeth generally are not uncommon), the only other reference I could find was a similar use of wolf's teeth in Pliny in relation to children. Damigeron's discussion is fairly short:
"Odontolycii: they are the teeth of a wolf; they are lucky and useful for soldiers and hunters and those wanting to seize something, and for divining water or for sensing the divine, having been placed under the base of a cup. It provides constant protection for the support of children. However, there were especially worn by thieves who wanted to plunder other's property." (This is my translation, and I'm not sure what this says about children.)
Pliny described the use of a wolf's tooth as an amulet to keep away childish terrors and teething ailments in babies (Nat. Hist. 28.78.257), and that the right canine was held to have magic power (Nat. Hist. 11.63.166). I truly wonder whether this use of a wolf's tooth for babies was a Roman tradition, building on the myth of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf. This inclusion in Pliny also makes me question the likelihood that Damigeron was literally referencing a tooth, and not a fossilised tooth.
As for "cock-stones", they too are rarely referenced. Once again, the only comparable text I could find comes from Pliny. Damigeron (19) wrote:
"The Alectorius stone is found in the gullets of cocks, the size of a bean, crystal-like or clear as water. Whoever wears this stone will not be overcome by anyone, though he will be tried and tested by many. ... Milo of Croton was never beaten when carrying this stone."
By comparison, Pliny (Nat. Hist. 37.54.144) wrote:
"Found in the gullet of cocks, they are called alectoriae, crystal-like, the size of a bean; it is claimed that Milo of Croton owes his reputation as one who was unbeaten to his use of it."
The idea that Milo of Croton, the greatest athlete at the ancient Olympic Games, used a magic stone to seemingly cheat seems a very odd idea. A wrestler who one first as a child, and then a further five times as an adult during the 6th century BCE, Milo was celebrated by Greek authors especially. Apart from the later Latin writer Solinus (1.77), who derived most of his work from Pliny, nowhere else is this idea written in antiquity. While referencing Milo was a great way to "prove" the stone's efficacy, this is not something I imagine a Greek author would have written.
While the swallow stones do appear to be a truly Greek tradition, its popularity among Latin authors, combined with the hints of Latin traditions in relation to wolves' teeth and cock stones, I truly question the purely Greek credentials of this text as the theory that this is just a later Latin translation of Damigeron's text suggests. That said, I would need to look at the rest of the other 47 stones to say this with complete confidence.
This Latin text became quite popular in the Middle Ages, with numerous lapidaries (this is the technical term for texts devoted to stones) throughout that period of time drawing on its text. Marbodus of Rennes who wrote a Latin poem, De Lapidibus, especially drew upon it, even referring to Evax in his work. While Damigeron is little known among classicists and ancient historians, his influence on later works devoted to stones and natural philosophy was considerable. It is quite possible that the New Age ideas of crystal healing developed from this unusual Latin text. So-called New Age crystal healing, might not be that "new" after all.
Further reading:
Tahil, Patricia (translator), 1989, Damigeron [De Virtutibus Lapidum] The Virtue of Stones, Seattle: Ars Obscura Press. This seems to have been written more for the New Age crowd, rather than ancient historians.
Duffin, Chistopher John. 2007, "Alectorius: The Cock Stone", Folklore, vol. 118, pp. 325-341.
Duffin, Christopher John. 2013, "Chelidonius: The Swallow Stone", Folklore, vol. 124, pp. 81-103.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, books 36-7